On a recent Friday evening, nearly 1,000 cyclists gathered on Public Square for Critical Mass, a monthly ride where bikers normally relegated to the side of the road take over the streets en masse, triumphantly streaming through red lights with a police escort.
The festive ride feels a little like a gay pride parade for the biking community, with riders ranging from Rocky River dads in lycra shorts to hipsters with ironic mustaches to eastside cyclists with low-rider bikes, with every size and shape in between.
It wasn't always this way. Just a few years ago, the ragged band of cyclists who started Critical Mass was ticketed by the Cleveland police for riding in the middle of the street. Yet recently, the cops began holding up traffic to make sure the cyclists get through.
By all accounts, Cleveland has become significantly more bike-friendly in recent years. From the shipping-containers-cum-bike-parking-corrals in Gordon Square to monthly "Wheels and Heels" rides that draw 150-plus women cyclists to the new Bike Rack parking facility downtown, bikes are everywhere.
As a result, more cyclists are hitting the roads. Advocacy group Bike Cleveland says the number of people commuting to work by bicycle in Cleveland has gone up 280 percent over the past 10 years. That doesn't even include the hipsters who bike to the bars or the diehard treehuggers who pedal organic groceries home from the farmers market.
Cleveland's growing biking culture even has its own sense of style, from tattooed dudes in rolled-up pants to hot chicks who bike in skirts. What will the kids think of next?
The people who rank cities for bike-friendliness – yes, these are actual jobs – are taking note. This year for the first time ever, Cleveland was awarded a Bronze-level designation as a bicycle-friendly community from the League of American Bicyclists. "Cleveland exhibits a sustained commitment to cycling," reviewers said in the League's report.
The report lauded the Towpath Trail project, programs and services of Bike Cleveland, Crank Set Rides and the Ohio City Bike Co-op, the new velodrome in Slavic Village, and critical new infrastructure like the bikeway on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge.
"The reviewers felt that there is still 'room to grow,' but that notable steps are being made in the right direction," it continued. "Reviewers were very pleased to see the current efforts and dedication to make Cleveland a great place for cyclists."
Ramping up progress
So what can Cleveland do to become a more bike-friendly community and potentially earn a Gold rating like the cities of Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and Palo Alto?
The report recommends updating the city's bike plan, adding more bike infrastructure, reducing traffic speeds, adding a way-finding system, promoting more bike-friendly businesses, and educating drivers, cyclists and police about bike safety issues.
"Update the comprehensive bike plan in close collaboration with Bike Cleveland," the League urged. "Focus on developing a seamless cycling network that creates short distances between residential areas and popular destinations such as schools, commercial areas, recreational facilities, cultural resources and transit stops."
City of Cleveland officials acknowledge that there is more work to do, yet they say that the Bronze designation is evidence that the city is indeed becoming more bike-friendly.
"We're on the right track," says Jenita McGowan, chief of sustainability for the City of Cleveland. "We're committed to creating a network of cycling infrastructure in the city."
Still, local advocates say that city leaders must step up their efforts to go for the gold. They say that while we're making progress, bolder steps are needed to hasten change.
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